Why subject myself to a three-day sufferfest of sitting?
Why subject myself to a three-day sufferfest of sitting?
Why subject myself to a three-day sufferfest of sitting? (illustration: Josh Cochran)

Out of His Mind

For a compulsive adventurer who can't stay put, sometimes there's only one cure: Get Zen. If only it were that easy.

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Sit still. Focus on the breath.

Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in . . . I can't help but notice that the petite blonde beside me is exhaling so loudly—with rhythmic nasal hoots—that she must have fully transcended her thoughts. Am I the only loser in the room who's not in a trance?

I'm at meditation camp. I know—I can't believe it either. If there are two things in this world I'm fundamentally incapable of, they are sitting still and not thinking. I was walking at seven months old, running at eight months. When I was nine years old, my Sunday-school teacher apprised me that I was “headed for hell” for asking impertinent questions. In college, I majored in philosophy—Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Heidegger were my gurus. Later, between expeditions, I spent years training myself to write, which is just thinking on paper.

There I go again.

Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in. I lift my eyes ever so slightly and sneak a peak out the window. Freedom! All I want is to be outside, hiking, biking, mowing the lawn, even—it doesn't really matter. I just have to move.

I think, therefore I am; I do, therefore I live—my two mantras for as long as I can remember. So why subject myself to a three-day sufferfest of sitting?

I blame it partly on Grasshopper. The TV series Kung Fu caught me at an impressionable age, and its star, a martial-arts apprentice named Grasshopper, was my idea of cool. (“Grasshopper, when you can walk on the rice paper without tearing it, then your steps will not be heard . . .”) He was always getting himself into some kind of exciting mess, meditating on it, then kicking ass.

Science is responsible for the rest. It's no big secret that meditation is known to reduce stress, but recent research suggests that it may also improve athletic performance. Erik Ekker Solberg, a sports-medicine specialist and cardiologist based in Oslo, Norway, has been researching the pyschobiological effects of meditation for more than a decade. Among his discoveries: For competitive marksmen, regular meditation enhances the accuracy of shooting; and in a study of 31 male runners, those who practiced meditation twice a day for 30 minutes showed significantly reduced levels of lactic-acid buildup after exercise. Lactic acid is the burning sludge that forms in your muscles when you exert yourself. You can meditate that out of your system? Sign me up!

As it happens, a world-renowned institution of meditation, the Shambhala Mountain Center, sits just down the road from my Wyoming home, across the state line in Colorado. Founded in 1971 by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Buddhist lama exiled from Tibet after the 1949 Chinese invasion, the SMC is an idyllic 600-acre Buddhist campus. Located at 8,000 feet in the Rockies, amid meadows and ponderosa forests, with a meditation hall, dorms, and a magnificent Buddhist shrine, the SMC is a place where Western idealism and Eastern spiritualism happily coexist. The center hosts 10,000 overnight visitors a year, most of whom are participating in personal quests, from three-day yoga seminars to monthlong meditation intensives.

I signed up for an introductory weekend retreat in shamatha, or sitting, meditation. The SMC program description promised a regimented schedule—multi-hour sittings each day, relieved only by meals, a bit of walking meditation, and discussion. Yoga, the only optional activity, started each morning at 6:45 a.m.; lights-out was at 10:30 p.m. I booked a bed in the bunk room and bought the recommended reading, Turning the Mind into an Ally, by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche (son of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and spiritual leader of the Shambhala Mountain Center). I read it twice, underlined obsessively, and started training. Yes, training.

Meditation is known to reduce stress, but research suggests that it may also improve athletic performance and speed recovery.

I admit it: I was scared. I don't think twice about climbing an unknown mountain in Uganda, tramping through waist-deep slime in the jungles of Burma, or riding horseback across Afghanistan, but the idea of driving less than an hour from my home to sit quietly in a room for three days freaked me out. I worried about keeping absolutely still, surrounded by a bunch of serious people, thinking serious thoughts when I shouldn't be thinking any thoughts at all.

So, as often as I could get up the nerve, I'd unroll a deep-green Tibetan rug on the hardwood floor of our living room and sit. I'd sit still on the wool rug amid its 12 lotus flowers and attempt to focus on my breathing, and I'd fail. One thought after another kept popping up, like those damn gophers in the carnival game—this story's due in two weeks, I'm thirsty, why aren't I outside climbing?—and I'd try to clobber every one with a fat mental bat.

I knew I was in trouble.

Sure enough, the first evening at camp, sitting with 37 other students on blue cushions arranged across heated wood floors, I found myself thinking as hard as I could about not thinking. Our instructor, Greg Smith, a slight 53-year-old with a gray beard who's been teaching meditation for nearly 25 years, had told us in a deep metronomic voice to “put your eyes in the middle distance and just focus on your breath. That's meditation. That's actually all there is to it.” Closing your eyes all the way was strongly discouraged; you might fall asleep.

When I'd sneak a look around, it appeared everybody else already knew how to do this. The real estate agent to my left, the wildlife biologist to my right, the insurance consolidator behind me, the pharmaceutical salesman in front of me—they all looked tuned in. It was true: I was the worst meditator on the planet.

Wait, don't forget the breath.

I concentrated with all I had and managed to hold on to the sensation of breathing for exactly three full breaths. Then I had to shrug my shoulders because of a sharp ache in my back, and then I had to shift my legs, and I thought about how sitting cross-legged isn't all that comfortable, and then I remembered how the Chinese can squat for hours, and I thought about all the monks I've met in Tibet and how, through years of practice and discipline, they can sit in the lotus position on cold stones for hours, which made me start thinking about what a weenie I was, which made me absolutely certain that I couldn't sit still for one more minute . . .

When the gong finally sounded, I tried to stand up slowly and casually, as if I were waking from some perfect dream—when what I really wanted was to leap to my feet, howl obscenities, dash outside, and roll in the snow like a dog.

During the question-and-answer session that followed, I was secretly relieved to hear that others were struggling, too. When I told the group that my willful desire not to have thoughts was in itself a thought that was getting in the way of my not thinking, people chuckled in acknowledgment—or maybe pity. Smith eyed me with concern and said emphatically, “Let that go. Accept that you are going to have thoughts, just don't let them drag you around.”

That night, lying in my sleeping bag in the dorm, I reread (by headlamp) portions of Turning the Mind into an Ally. “A bewildered mind is like a wild horse,” Mipham writes in a chapter called “Bewilderment and Suffering.” The wild horse needs to be tamed, but through gentle coaxing, not brute force. In a chapter called “How to Gather a Scattered Mind,” he explains, “Holding the mind too tightly can be harmful. When our control is too tight, the mind will bolt at the earliest opportunity.”

He was affirming what I already knew: I was trying too hard.

I switched off my headlamp, dressed, and slipped out of the dorm. I was breaking curfew, but I needed some exercise. The sky was black above the aspens, the snow like an ocean. Walking alone through the forest, I thought back to when I learned to ride a horse.

I worked on a ranch as a boy and was a terrible horseman. I was often reprimanded for holding the reins too tight, which would make my horse whinny and struggle and jerk its head. “Not too tight, not too loose,” a cowboy once told me from the saddle, spitting brown tobacco juice and wiping his face with the back of his hand. Back at the dorm, when I picked up Mipham's book again, I noticed that “Not Too Tight, Not Too Loose” is the title of chapter ten.

So where have I been? Meditation made the cover of Time years ago, a sure sign that a trend has reached critical mass and the whole world's doing it. There are seemingly more meditation options than there are lattes at Starbucks: transcendental meditation, transformational meditation, tantric meditation, mantra meditation, vipassana meditation, shamatha meditation, and a hundred others. And the whole world's gone Zen: Zen golf, Zen gardening, Zen and the art of ferrets, Zen and the art of the mosh pit, Zen and the art of pumpkin bombing. Even Grasshopper—David Carradine—has been resurrected as a twisted Zen master in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill films.

Meditation is a practice older than Hinduism and Buddhism. Although the dogmas of both religious philosophies have become intertwined with meditation, the most basic reason for meditating is to calm the mind and live in the present. Shamatha, also called “peaceful abiding,” is a physical and mental discipline. You sit cross-legged, back straight, head erect, eyes lowered, and train your mind to follow the breath. In and out, in and out—steady, calm, fluid. The point is to unshackle yourself from external distractions, the incessant discursiveness of thoughts, and any emotional roller-coastering. The goal is to be with yourself, in the moment, which will help you—voilà—unlock the secret to true happiness.

Or so they say. That first night at meditation camp, I dreamed I was trapped in a tight glass box in the sitting position. The next morning, I shuffled through the snow from my dorm to the Sacred Studies Hall. Friends had raved about yoga for years—”It would be so good for you”—but I'd held out.

Only a third of the class showed up. For an hour and 15 minutes, while focusing on our breathing, we went through a series of poses that both stretched and tensed my body: sun salutations, cobra, upward-facing dog, downward, triangle, corpse—the names sounded exotic to a neophyte like me. But I was sweating and my body was doing something and my mind was focused. Which is to say, my friends had been right.

We walked in single file—slowly, solemnly, and silently. I kept thinking about hitting the woman in front of me with a snowball.

After breakfast, it was back to the meditation cushion for a marathon four-hour session. This time I loosened up the reins, and the natural divagations of my mind seemed to distract me a little less. I discovered I could focus on the breathing, but still for only a few seconds at a time. In my best moments, my mind shifted from concentrating on my breath to hearing my heart inside my chest. I could feel the blood surging down through my arms and out to my fingertips, moving down my legs and into my feet.

We took a break for walking meditation—strolling so slowly that it's possible to lose your balance and fall over—and then did another Q&A with Smith. He asked us to describe the sensations we were having. Some of us said we could only hold on to a single breath; others said they could go for five or ten. When I mentioned that I could feel the blood streaming through my body, Smith seemed surprised. “That could be indicative of a deep state of meditation,” he said.

I wish.

For the afternoon, we were instructed to abide by noble silence. Meaning: no talking for the next six hours. I suspect we all wanted to get to know everybody else, but that wasn't the point of this retreat. Like it or not, we were here to get to know ourselves.

After a silent lunch, we walked in single file—slowly, solemnly, and silently, with our hands clasped in front of our stomachs like friars—through the snow up to the stupa. I kept thinking about hitting the woman in front of me with a snowball.

A stupa is a religious monument meant to remind humans of their potential for enlightenment. The Great Stupa of Dharmakaya, at the Shambhala Mountain Center, took 13 years to build and enshrines the teachings of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Having seen hundreds in Asia, I can report that this stupa, right here in the middle of modern America, is one of the most stunningly beautiful ones on the planet. Resembling a tall, narrow, gold-topped crown, it's exactly 108 feet tall and (excuse my floridity) radiates tranquillity.

We all sat and meditated inside it, although I spent most of my time staring up at the mandala on the ceiling, a gorgeously complex, worlds-within-worlds Buddhist version of the Sistine Chapel, painted by our instructor, Greg Smith, and a team of volunteers.

That afternoon, back at the Sacred Studies Hall, we meditated for two more hours. Like a kid after recess, I found I could relax better and focus more easily. I let my mind settle onto my breath and then, naturally, to the comforting thump of my heart. I could feel the blood circulating through my body like wind through the mountains. My breathing almost seemed to stop. Between my ordinary salmagundi of thoughts about sex and mayhem, I discovered that, now and again, I could actually be still and be in the moment. And whenever I got there, I was surprised to find that I recognized the feeling. I'd been there before.

We ate dinner in silence, which I enjoyed—back at home with my family, I can barely get a word in edgewise. Noble silence was then lifted for rota, or chores. I volunteered for kitchen duty, which I've always considered a good chance to goof off. Then someone broke out a bottle of wine (yes, it's allowed), which struck me as promising—maybe we'd get to know each other—until people started wandering off to bed. Just in time for lights-out.

Later, after everybody in my dorm room was asleep, I slipped out again. It was snowing, and I decided to hike up to the stupa. I didn't move fast or slow; I just walked at a natural pace. There are few experiences more grounding or more peaceful than walking through snowfall in the dark. When I reached the stupa, it was luminescent, bathed in faint light from four floodlights, one in each corner of the grounds.

I began to circumnavigate the monument clockwise. I walked and listened to the snow crunch underfoot. Ever since yoga practice, I'd been coming to something in my mind. I just didn't know what it was.

The floodlights created four wedges of light separated by four large spaces of darkness. A line of prayer flags curved upward from each of the floodlights to the top of the stupa. On each circle, I stopped beneath a different line of red flags, put my head back, and stood there inside a magical curtain of falling snow. Tiny flakes wet my face like rain. At an undetermined moment, I would step out of the panel of twinkling light back into the empty blackness.

The snowfall was so faint it could hardly be felt or seen between the floodlight beams. I was listening to my footfalls in the snow, making my seventh circumambulation of the stupa, not thinking a thing, when I was struck by something: There had been many times in my life when I was calm, limpid, and fully present—they just didn't happen when I was sitting. They happened when I was climbing.

When I'm leading on rock or ice, I'm usually so focused that it's impossible for a thought to slip in. There is no chatter, no emotion, no analysis. It must be the feeling experienced by a single-handed sailor, when he centers all his energy on surviving a storm, or a kayaker, when he's fluidly running whitewater. Smith had said that in deep states of meditation you don't simply feel the breath; you become the breath.

Perhaps it's the innate fear of falling, but when I'm leading well, I'm not merely moving; I feel like the movement itself. I could have it all wrong, but I'd bet the sensation a monk experiences after meditating is much the same as the rush of euphoria and peacefulness that comes over me after leading a pitch.

I practically danced back to the dorm that night. Along the way, I remembered once asking my 14-year-old daughter, Addi, who is a competitive swimmer and has loved water since she was a baby, what she thought about lap after lap.

“Nothing. Water washes away all my worries. I'm just moving through the liquid.”

No matter what teenage mood she goes to swimming with, she inevitably comes home flushed and cheerful.

I remembered what my wife told me after running the Boston Marathon. Minutes after she'd crossed the finish line, I asked, “What are you thinking about mile after mile?”

“I'm not,” she said.

The next day, I once again failed miserably at sitting meditation, but it didn't bother me too much. After all, I'm just beginning. But then again, maybe I've been meditating my whole life.

From Outside Winter Traveler 2006 Lead illustration: Josh Cochran

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